|The Instant Automatons Archive|
Bands, Boredom, Culture Fission - the history of The Instant Automatons
by Mark (vocals, saxophone, guitar)
If it's true what Sellar and Yeatman say in 1066 And All That, that "history is not what you thought. It's what you can remember." then this account is going to have some pretty large holes in it. What I'll have to do is cobble it together from my reminiscences and fill in the aforesaid holes with bits from our press releases.
So when and where did it all begin? I was born in England. Protag (then known only as Martin Neish) was born in Scotland. By some strange twist of fate, we ended up attending the same school in Lincolnshire. Some time in the middle of 1974, each driven by our own agendas, we came up with the idea of forming a band. Of course, in those pre-Punk days, forming and playing in a band wasn't just something that you "did". There were rules. The rules involved such concepts as "learning to play" and "paying your dues" before you could even consider getting signed to a major record label (the only kind we were aware of back then).
We were never ones to abide by rules, but then again we weren't the kind of people to make a big deal of breaking them, either. So for a while, the "band" only existed in our imagination. Another big stumbling block was the fact that we had no real instruments, so we began tinkering with signal-generators and amplifiers in the school physics lab. This turned out to be oddly satisfying, as we were able to approximate a few of the sounds being produced by some of our shared musical influences of the time; Hawkwind, Gong and various German experimentalists like Faust, Kraftwerk and Can.
However, just when the joy of emulating spaceship noises in a second-rate Northern grammar school was beginning to pall, two world-changing events occurred almost simultaneously; we left school, and Punk spat full in the face of rock'n'roll tradition.
It's difficult, if not impossible, to convey to people who weren't around at the time the sense of freedom that came with the rise of independent record labels and the bands that founded them. I suppose it was akin to witnessing the demolition of the Berlin Wall. We had also both found day-jobs and money had started rolling in. Although it wasn't much, it was more than we'd ever had before; we had had artistic and financial freedom handed to us on a plate, we were young and full of sugar. How could we not succeed?
Slowly, we amassed instruments and recording equipment, including a home-made synthesiser and drum machine - I won't detain you with the technical details, as they can be found elsewhere on this site - and regular rehearsal/recording sessions took place. We invited friends to contribute what they could; Mike Holmes, Vicky Lofas and Sally Norman all had a part to play in the early shaping of the (still unnamed) band.
Yes, that's right: We had a band. We had instruments and recording equipment. We had tapes of us making noise. What we didn't have was a name, so it was time to take the plunge and break out the champagne for the christening ceremony.
Our record label was easy; Deleted Records more or less named itself - a rather obvious pun - but the band was a different matter. Back in '74 we'd thought of the name Abraxas (from the name of a minor demon, not the LP by Santana), but in '77 that name smacked too much of the Old Order - long hair, heavy metal and "heads down, no nonsense mindless boogie". No, we needed a vaguely self-mocking name like some of our contemporaries; The Desperate Bicycles, The Thin Yoghurts, Tone Deaf and The Idiots...well, you get the idea. The trouble was, we couldn't think of one, although some of those that were considered and rejected turned up later on the pseudo-compilation cassette Magnitizdat - The Least Worst Of Deleted Records. In a fit of desperation we wrote various words on bits of paper and put them in a hat. We drew out two: "Automaton" and "Instant". Hey presto!
(Incidentally, we're quite aware of the fact that the correct plural of "Automaton" is "Automata", but I'm afraid "The Instant Automata" just doesn't have the same ring to it - and it's too late to change it now anyway!)
So by the end of 1978 we had a name, a record company and about ten hours of sessions on tape. Time to make our mark on the world. We assembled the least worst of the recorded sessions on a master tape with which to produce a C90 cassette album; Radio Silence - The Art Of Human Error. This featured material as old as Stumblin' In The Neon (recorded in early '77 and featuring the Girls' High School piano) and as new as the title track, the final take of which was recorded straight onto the album master.
The next step was to distribute the cassette. We did this by advertising in the music press - if you sent us a blank cassette and a self-addressed envelope, we would record our "album" onto the tape and send it back, completely free of charge. At first, this was met by some bewilderment - some music papers even refused to carry our adverts, thinking we were dealing in bootlegs - but eventually the idea caught on. Soon, dozens (and eventually hundreds) of bands were releasing and distributing their music on cassette in a similar fashion. The big music papers like Sounds and NME even ran regular columns reporting on the latest releases from the cassette music scene.
In due course a copy of Radio Silence that we had originally sent to a band called The Trokkoids ended up at the offices of the underground newspaper International Times. From there, it came into the possession of a fellow by the name of Keith Dobson, better known by his pseudonym of Kif Kif Le Batteur. Kif Kif had been the drummer with the band Here & Now, and was one of the people involved with a studio in London called Street Level. One evening he rang me totally out of the blue and said he was putting together a gig featuring various bands from the cassette music scene, and he wanted us to play. Dazed and confused, I agreed (even though we'd never played live before). We eventually played at the Acklam Hall, just off Portobello Road in West London. We were awful, of course, but it didn't matter - so was everyone else who played. It was, after all, advertised as The Bad Music Festival. Soon after, Street Level put out a 7" vinyl EP, the Weird Noise EP on Fuck Off Records, which included contributions from such cassette superstars as The 012 and Danny And The Dressmakers. It also featured an excerpt of one of our cassette tracks. We had finally made it onto plastic!
Following on from that, we booked some time in the Street Level studio and recorded a number of tracks which eventually became the Peter Paints His Fence EP. This was released in 1980 on Deleted Records. It was this record which provided us with what was probably the media high-point of our career - John Peel played a couple of tracks on his Radio 1 show.
On the sleeve notes of Peter Paints His Fence we included an advertisement asking for someone to help with transport and equipment. A fellow from Woolwich called Mic Woods contacted us in response to the advert. He said he couldn't drive and didn't have much equipment but he'd like to help, and he played guitar. Although I played guitar, my technique was very rudimentary (Mic was a much better guitarist - he could even play barre chords!) and I found great difficulty in playing and singing at the same time when we played live, so we jumped at the chance. The classic line-up of the Automatons was formed.
Over the next few years we continued to release music on cassette, and to make the occasional foray onto vinyl as well. The second vinyl release on Deleted Records was a double EP called Angst In My Pants, which featured various bands we had become associated with. We also contributed to several compilations released by other labels on both cassette and vinyl.
So for a few years we continued recording. We played live at venues throughout the country. We made lots of friends; among them the band Zounds, with whom we played a number of gigs. Things seemed to be ticking along nicely.
Except they weren't. I had always been the principal lyric writer, but by 1982 it was becoming more and more difficult to find subjects I wanted to write about. I also felt frustrated that I was taking great care to craft meaningful lyrics but no one was actually paying any attention to the words of the songs - you can hear the bitterness in our later stuff like Worcester Avenue and Violence. Eventually my writer's block overwhelmed me entirely. I wrote to Mic and Protag (who was living in London by then) and told them I was leaving the band.
I would have liked them to have carried on, but I think they must have felt it wouldn't have been the same without me. The Instant Automatons' Five-Year Plan had come to completion.